As a tool of the trade in the weird and wonderful world of sport, there’s nothing quite like the golf ball. Small, dimpled and seemingly innocent, its capacity to infuriate continues to underscore Mark Twain’s ancient observation about golf being a good walk spoiled.
We’ve come a long way since golf’s earliest swingers swatted away at wooden orbs, graduated to ‘featheries’ (goose feathers sewn into leather pouches), and rejoiced in Robert Adams Paterson’s 1848 breakthrough that fashioned the resin of the sapodilla tree into a hard, smooth sphere called the ‘guttie’. Yet from the rarefied air occupied by the game’s most decorated professionals, through to weekend hackers who count balls lost as well as strokes in assessing a round’s success, the golf ball remains a source of fascination and frustration.
“Get in the hole!” “Get out of the trees!” “Sit down!” “Get up!” “Fade!” “Draw!” “Kick right!” “Break left!” “No – not in the lake!” ...
For all that the humble golf ball has been advanced by science, mercifully the boffins haven’t worked out how to give it feelings. Such is the stream of advice and abuse that comes its way, there would be a stream of gutted gutties flying straight from 18th hole to the therapist’s couch.
All in the echelon
Sportspeople have always used equipment of varying specifications (and price) depending on their standard of play, a reality that’s never more pronounced than on a golf course. “As soon as you get to a certain level, you take more notice of what golf ball you’re using,” says RACV golf co-ordinator Tom King. “There are different echelons of balls for different players.
“You start with a basic one, but once I got to a lower handicap I’ve pretty much used the same ball ever since. Anyone who plays regularly would notice the difference between a $2 ball and an $8 ball.”
In essence, that difference manifests in two areas: distance (off the tee and fairway), and feel (around the greens). Historically a harder shell has equated to greater distance, a softer casing to more spin and control at the expense of length. Two-piece balls consisted of a solid core encased in surlyn (a hard, durable resin) with their simplicity of design rendering them cheaper to make. As far back as the early 1900s more serious golfers used balls with shells made from the sap of the balata tree, which were softer and offered greater control. Balata balls went the same way as video recorders, replaced by urethane shells as the quest for the perfect ball gathered pace.
‘Turning golf upside down’
Tour players wanted the best of both worlds, and in 2000 Titleist heralded a revolution with the release of the Pro V1, hailed as “the ball that’s turning golf upside down”.
Mike Whitlock, Titleist’s golf ball product manager for Australia and New Zealand, says golfers had hitherto been forced to make a performance choice: play a solid core ball that was designed purely for distance, or a soft, high-spin ball for more control into the green.
“The Pro V1 came along and provided all golfers with both. The best-performing golf ball for tour players was now also the best-performing ball for all golfers.”
Tom King became a Titleist man when his handicap rocketed down from 32 to single figures by age 16. Now in his early 20s, he plays off two, is a member at the Rosanna Golf Club and enjoys up to three rounds a week. A dozen of his ball of choice – the Pro V1x – costs around $80.
Vandals of a certain age will remember cutting into a balata golf ball and finding seemingly miles of elastic band wrapped around a core filled with a gooey liquid. Today’s innards are less messy and more scientific. Tom’s ball of choice is a four-piece construction, and he says more layers generally equate to greater softness and spring off the club face.
Golf-ball manufacturing is a seriously competitive business. Mike Whitlock points to Titleist’s 80-strong research and development team who use reams of “launch condition data” (i.e. golfers hitting balls) to inform robotic testing at Titleist HQ, where thousands of automated shots are manipulated using a wind tunnel to make tomorrow’s Titleists even better.
Claims to market leadership are constantly under threat. Titleist’s Pro V balls are used by stars such as Australia’s Adam Scott and American Jordan
Spieth, but brands such as TaylorMade, Srixon, Callaway and Bridgestone ensure the race is no gentle downhill roll. TaylorMade recently released the TP5 to great fanfare, upping the number of pieces to five including a very soft inner core to promote higher trajectory, and a dual outer layer of soft urethane over a rigid inner cover.
Australia’s former world No.1 player Jason Day trumpets the TP5 as a missile that could have non-elite golfers hitting, for example, their seven iron as far as they currently hit their six. Golfers of all standards will relate to Day’s sales pitch: “Who wouldn’t want more distance?”